Challenging a Supposed Benefit of Being a Philosophy Major

(Originally published Sep 17, 2012)

At the risk of committing philosophical heresy, I want to challenge a popular argument for the relevancy of being a philosophy major. Recently, there was another presentation of the fact that philosophy majors have the highest scores on the Verbal and Analytic Writing sections of the GRE, which is supposed to demonstrate the relevance of philosophy majors (and so departments).  (Brian Leiter also picked this up and has linked to similar findings about the LSATs as well.) Unfortunately, there are two fundamental flaws with this argument.

Before I make this unpopular point, however, I want to emphasize that I understand and largely agree with the motivation of the argument. It is vitally important in the current climate to justify philosophy and demonstrate its relevance. I completely agree that philosophy is a useful and relevant field of study. I also greatly appreciate that, at least on this question, many philosophers are happy to appeal to empirical data.  However, it is important that our arguments in support of philosophy be good ones.

Let me focus on the chart Dr. Sifferd presents (created by Ty Fagan):

Doesn’t this look nice? Doesn’t it look like studying philosophy will help you score better on the GRE?

As I said, there are two problems with this argument.  First, there is a matter of statistics.  I can’t say for certain (not having seen the raw data), but I strongly doubt that the differences here are statistically significant. Take the writing scores.  Philosophy majors average 4.4, while English majors only 4.3.  That likely isn’t a significant difference (though the difference with Computer Science at 3.4 probably is significant). I suspect that the p-value is much too high to reject the null hypotheses that Philosophy majors score higher than English, PoliSci, Physics, or Economics majors.

Further, the effect size is much too small to be significant, I expect. Even if it turns out that p < 0.05, there is a second question, not answered here.  Does the slight difference between Philosophy and English make any difference in likelihood of admission to grad school?  It might be that variations of a few points are irrelevant to increasing one’s chances of getting into graduate school (or the program of your choice).  After all, that is the real goal, not just slightly higher scores.

The second problem is that we have here correlation, not causation. It seems entirely possible to me that Philosophy majors tend to attract students that are already better at analytic thinking than, say, Computer Science or Business. They like what we do in Philosophy, and that’s why they major in Philosophy. So it’s not that we necessarily make them better thinkers (or better at taking this test), but that they were already better than their undergraduate colleagues that opt for some other majors. So the results would be indicative of a selection bias, not of results produced by studying philosophy.

When philosophy departments all over the country are under attack and threatened with dissolution, it is natural and right for us as philosophers to promote justification for our place in the academy.  Sadly, we must often make these justifications in terms dictated by those seeking to dismantle philosophy departments, i.e., in terms of immediate application and usefulness. However, we must be careful to avoid faulty reasoning, since that is precisely contrary to what we’re supposed to be teaching that is so useful. So we as a discipline must ask ourselves the following question.  What better arguments can we muster for the relevancy of philosophy, especially what arguments are there that can be articulated in terms that our “practical” opponents can understand?

UPDATE: Since I first posted this, there has been some discussion in the comments here and on the blog that first posted the chart above.  In light of those comments (and some subsequent thoughts of my own), there are a few revisions I’d like to make.  First, as Zach Horne pointed out in the comments here, the data set of GRE scores is huge.  Lots and lots of students take the exam.  As a result, the p-values will probably be less than .05.  So I take back that claim.

Second, the selection bias issue actually appears worse than I’d thought.  As my colleague Mark Alfano pointed out in conversation (and mentioned in the comments below), not everyone takes the GRE.  So it is also possible that Philosophy does better at only getting our top students to take the GRE than other departments.  And, as I said above, this data gives us no independent reason to believe that studying philosophy makes one a better writer and thinker, instead of it being the case that the better writers and thinkers become philosophy majors.

Third, most college undergrads aren’t planning on going to grad school.  So to tell the average undergrad that studying philosophy will help them get into grad school doesn’t give them a reason to become a Philosophy major.  We’re trying to make Philosophy more appealing, to attract more students, to give more students a reason to study Philosophy.  This appeal to GRE scores is only minimally successful on that score (assuming the other problems just mentioned aren’t problems).  If this is the best argument we’ve got for why one should study Philosophy, we are severely limited in the pool of potential students we can draw from.  My hope is that we can find better arguments.  (More coming on that soon.)

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